Could you imagine if the Cowboys had selected Johnny Manziel instead of Zack Martin? What if Jason Garrett didn’t lock himself in his office for seven hours and watch every snap of Jalen Ramsey and Ezekiel Elliott? Since Garrett took over as the Cowboys head coach, the team has done remarkably well at drafting. In six seasons, the Cowboys have drafted five All-Pros, and that doesn’t even include their nice, new franchise quarterback. That’s a pretty good haul. But which one of the Cowboys draft picks during Garrett’s tenure is the most significant?
Note: This isn’t necessarily about which pick turned out to be the best player. It goes deeper than that. It contains all aspects within the pick that has had some sort of impact on this Cowboys team.
Here are my top three choices...
Tyron Smith (1st round, 2011)
The first ever draft pick with Jason Garrett as head coach was the tackle from USC, Tyron Smith. Prior to that, the Jerry Jones Cowboys had never selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft. In fact, it had been 30 years prior since they took a first-round blocker when they selected guard Howard Richards with the 26th overall pick in the 1981 draft.
Garrett vowed to remodel the offensive line. He stayed true to that commitment as they parted ways with veterans players like Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, and Kyle Kosier. He would add All Pro after All Pro over the next few years. The Cowboys are now known as having arguably the best offensive line in football, but it all started with this pick.
It’s no secret how great Smith has become. The All Pro left tackle has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons. He was recently voted the 18th best player on the NFL’s Top 100 and was the top offensive lineman on that list. Smith isn’t just a great player, he was a statement pick. And that statement was that Garrett was going to return the dominance of the offensive line back to the Cowboys.
Had the Cowboys not drafted Smith, it’s possibly they would have taken elite pass rusher J.J. Watt. You could make a case that you can’t go wrong with either one of those, which could water down the significance this decision. But this wasn’t just about the players involved. This was about an identity. The Cowboys new coach had a plan and selecting Tyron Smith was the first step in executing it.
Travis Frederick (1st round, 2013)
You could make a case for all three of the Cowboys All Pro offensive linemen to be listed here, but Frederick gets the nod because of the extra curricular activity that came with it. When the Cowboys traded the 18th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers in return for 31st and 74th pick, many fans were angry as they passed up an opportunity to get a good player. And to make matters worse many draft pundits criticized the Cowboys selection of Frederick as they felt he was a big “reach” to be taken as early as the first round.
Four seasons have passed and Frederick hasn’t missed a single start of his young career. He’s a three time Pro Bowler and was an All Pro selection last season. He finished 87th on the NFL’s Top 100 list. He has completely put to rest any notion that he wasn’t the very best pick at 31. In fact, he was one of the best picks in the entire draft.
Not only did the Cowboys get a stud offensive lineman, but they also got a bonus pick that allowed them to select Terrance Williams in the third round. Williams recently got a second contract in Dallas and is a key part of the team’s strong receiving group.
But the fun don’t end there. This draft marked a turning point in the control of Assistant Director of Player Personnel, Will McClay. The first round of the 2013 draft consisted of power struggle between the college scouts who wanted the best pure talent (Shariff Floyd) versus the pro guys who wanted the best fit for the Cowboys team (Frederick). We know how it played out and ever since McClay has been in charge of the Cowboys board. So the next time you hear BPA, keep in mind that it really means BPAFACFT (best player available for a Cowboys football team).
Fun Fact: The 49ers selected safety Eric Reid with that 18th pick they got from the Cowboys. Reid’s first two season with the 49ers were outstanding (one Pro Bowl appearance) where he had seven interceptions to start his career. Ever since, he’s cooled off and has only had one pick. Greg Jackson was the 49ers safeties coach during those first two years and left for Michigan when Jim Harbaugh was fired. Jackson is the Cowboys safety coach now.
Jaylon Smith (second round, 2016)
You might be asking yourself how a player who hasn’t logged a single snap could make this list? That’s a fair question and I hope I have a good answer for it. Strangely, the significance of this pick has absolutely nothing to do the player himself. Zero. Smith could never play a down in the NFL and it wouldn’t change how meaningful this pick was. What really matters in all this is how the Cowboys managed to hang on to this draft pick.
You see, the Cowboys were real close to not even having a second round pick in 2016. Jerry Jones and company were pushing real hard to make a deal with the Seattle Seahawks that would allow them to select quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Cowboys were offering their second- and fourth-round picks to move up for Lynch. The Denver Broncos had an offer on the table as well which included two picks that were a few spots better from each position. It also came with a fifth-year option from their late first-rounder. In order for Dallas to outbid Denver, it would have required them to offer up a third-rounder instead of a fourth. The Cowboys passed.
Ultimately, the Denver Broncos had a better offer for Seattle and won the bidding war, but afterwards Jones was kicking himself for not upping the ante. In one of my favorite breakdowns of what happened inside the Cowboys War Room in 2016, Peter King enlightens us with some great information, including Jerry Jones expressing remorse:
“I’m not gonna go jump from Dallas’s tallest, so let’s put this in perspective,” said Jones, pausing for a few minutes in his day-two draft prep at the Cowboys’ complex. “And I live with second-guessing and disappointments. That’s a part of this business. But if I had to do it all over again? I’d give the three.”
So why didn’t the Cowboys just give up the third-round pick instead of the fourth? While the team loved Lynch, the Cowboys knew they would be better off waiting for a quarterback later and using their good picks in rounds two and three to strengthen the defense.
Garrett was okay settling for Connor Cook or Prescott down the road in the draft, maybe in Round 4 if they lasted that long. With needs on defense, Garrett preferred to take two defensive players in rounds two and three from among this pool: Oklahoma State pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith and Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
With the failed Lynch deal in the rearview mirror, the Cowboys proceeded to draft Jaylon Smith (second round), Maliek Collins (third round), and Dak Prescott (fourth round).
Prescott is the teams new franchise quarterback. He alone could make this list. But when you combine him with the up-and-coming Collins and the potential of Smith, that makes the Lynch no-deal a great situation.
You could put either of those three guys name on here as they’re all interconnected by this scenario. But what really puts this over the top is how this situation could propel itself into a new level of greatness if Smith returns close to form. We’ve all heard that the Cowboys orthopedist Dr. Dan Cooper spoke with good confidence that the nerve would regenerate and that Smith would return to the field at some point and play at a strong level. The nerve is regenerating, he’s now back on the football field, and the only thing left is playing at a high level. Will he get there? That’s left to be seen, but if he does and Smith becomes a star in this league, the six-degrees-of-separation of the Jaylon Smith pick would be of epic proportions.
Honorable Mention: Zack Martin (1st round, 2014)
If the Cowboys were actually close to drafting Johnny Manziel over Zack Martin, then that would make the Martin pick even higher. The difference of losing an All Pro guard and gaining a flamed out quarterback makes that decision rather meaningful. But while it has been wildly speculated that Jerry was close to handing in his card, the reality of it was that he was a one-man wolf pack when it came to advocating for Johnny Football.
"So there we were, staring at Johnny and Zack Martin," Stephen says. Jerry went around the table trying to wrangle support for Manziel, but he came up empty. "Lonely is the right word," Jerry says. "I don't think there was another soul in the room" who shared the owner's enthusiasm for Johnny Football. Instead, Jerry suggested his team trade out of the pick. "But no one was calling to trade," explains Stephen. By this time the boss "was not happy," says the son. Exasperated, Jerry finally asked, "So no one in this room wants to take Johnny Manziel?"
"There wasn't a peep," says Stephen, who told his old man, "Dad, we need to take Zack."
Honorable NON-Mention: Ezekiel Elliott (1st round, 2016)
If this was just based on talent alone, Zeke would make this pick one of the team’s best. Of course, when the team picks number four overall, people expect them to get a great player. But if the history of the NFL draft is any indicator, that’s easier said that done.
In last years draft, it was really a two-man race for the Cowboys between Zeke and Florida State cornerback, Jalen Ramsey. While Elliott is already a star in this league and could be on the verge of something even better, Ramsey is a nice consolation prize. The difference of these two picks isn’t enough to make this one of the top decisions. At least not yet.
Which draft pick of the Jason Garrett era do you think is the most significant?
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